Maundy Thursday: Washing up before Coming to the Table


The Last Supper window by Henry Holiday at The Church of the Holy Trinity, NYC

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Some years ago when I was trying to decide whether to transition from the Presbyterian Church to the Episcopal Church, I can tell you that the idea of footwashing was almost a deal-breaker. It seemed strange, contrived, artificial. I was used to certain rituals associated with Maundy Thursday, but they included things like shining my shoes, keeping them on my feet, and sitting in a church pew while I listened to the minister preach… and preach…. and preach.

When I took the leap into the Episcopal Church, before long I was serving as an acolyte, and in the church where I served, as Holy Week approached, I began to worry. I worried because I knew that all of the acolytes were expected to participate in the foot washing. That first Thursday approached, and I was nervous. Of course, knowing that I was nervous and worried felt self-righteous and prideful, which just made things worse.

I wondered, What if the person who was to was my feet didn’t like what they saw? What if they switched with another person to avoid me? What if they quietly washed my feet this year, but then left the church, desperate to avoid ever having to wash my feet in the future? And so my obsessive worry about feet continued. That first Maundy Thursday arrived. I had my feet washed, and I was surprised to find just how deeply moving the experience was, and has been ever since.

In that place, at the foot washing, everyone came forward, much like communion. One  person would kneel before another. It might be a stranger, a visitor, a homeless person, or a bishop. But if one really looks for Christ in the other person, in the awkwardness and vulnerability, something of Christ indeed seems present. For me, that’s the easier part, the washing of the other person’s feet. But as soon as they are dry, it would be time to switch places. It would be my turn to sit in the chair and allow another person to wash my feet. That’s the part I don’t like. I’m not good at being vulnerable or showing weakness and I don’t like being needy.

The washing of feet is symbolic, of course. In many churches, twelve people are selected and they represent the entire congregation. The Pope washed the feet of refugees today, both to remind us of Christ’s humility but also to highlight the situation of those who look for a new home and a fresh start.  But if we only stop there, with the priest, the bishop, or the Pope modeling humility, we’ve only got part of the Gospel.

“After Jesus washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, … if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

We, all of us, are called to wash feet and have our feet washed.  In just a few minutes, there will be the opportunity to do just that. There will be two chairs and two basins.  All who wish, are invited to form two lines and come forward, two and a time.  A person will be sitting in the chair.  You are invited to pour a little water on that person’s foot or feet, and then wipe it off with a towel.  Then, you are invited to take the chair, and the next person will come and wash your feet.  On and on, it continues.

“Love one another,” Jesus says, “even as I have loved you.” Maundy Thursday gives us

one way of acting out this very practical expression of love. But the foot washing is closely connected to the other great act of our Lord’s hospitality and graciousness: the Passover meal that he celebrates with his friends.

We continue to celebrate that meal. We offer the love of Christ to one another even as he offered his love, every time we celebrate the Holy Communion. Like the foot washing, there is a kind of threefold choreography.
At communion, we come forward either standing or kneeling, but we come in humility,  acknowledging that we need to be fed. We cannot feed ourselves entirely. All our striving,

our working, our grasping—in the end, does not satisfy. And so we hunger and thirst for

God, for change, for something to happen in our life, and we step forward.
We eat from common bread and we share a common cup. We risk closeness, we risk being needy, being like other people, being ordinary, being unleavened, as it were. But we also feel strengthened by one another. If the steps up to the altar are difficult, the person next to us helps us. If the knees don’t want to help us get down or up, there’s usually a stabilizing arm on one side or the other. If we’re unable to walk, a minister brings communion to us. And so we eat. And we drink, together.

And we are changed. We are renewed. By taking Christ’s body and blood into ourselves,we are made one with him and one with each other.

Every day is not Maundy Thursday and most of us don’t have the daily opportunity of serving one another by washing feet. Nor do all of us live at or meet people at the High Altar every day.

But we do live in a world of opportunities. We live in a world in which people hunger and thirst—for the essentials of food, shelter and clothing; for a sense of being loved and of belonging; and we live in a world that hungers for God.

May we grow into Christ’s new commandment. May we practice in every way, and continue to learn to love one another as he has loved us.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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